first heard: late 2004
Most people who know me know that I’m a pretty big fan of music, and anyone who has glimpsed through my music collection will be aware of how eclectic and even schizophrenic it actually is. I’ve found it difficult to categorise my general listening trends for a while now, I throw myself around my bedroom to a lot of absurdly heavy metal and hardcore, but I bask in a lot of sweet pop. I adore the primacy and directness of punk and DnB, but also the majestic arrangements and complexity of the Romantic era. I’m as much a sucker for a catchy tune as I am for a twisted barrage of atonal chords. I think our musical taste is largely informed by our experiences and certain types of music click intimately with our feelings, memories and worldviews. Through my teens I’ve managed to identify three key albums that have expanded my musical sights practically overnight and here I try to explain how they affected me as powerfully as they did.
Appetite for Destruction was the debut album of hard rock band Guns N’ Roses, it was released in 1987 and languished in sales for around a year before being propelled to the top of the US billboard by the stellar success of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. It is credited by critics as bringing gritty rock and roll back into the mainstream at a time when it was dominated by pop-metal like Bon Jovi and Poison. To me, the album is the purest representation of the original band in its raw, dirty glory, with later albums such as the Use Your Illusion duo becoming ever more self-indulgent and hit and miss. Unfortunately, the original Guns N’ Roses has been dead in all but name for a very long time, essentially becoming legendary egomaniac Axl Rose’s solo project sometime in the mid 90s, yet Appetite for Destruction represents a distant past in which these five guys were genuinely exciting and relevant.
I was first introduced to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ at the age of 13 when my dad played the song to me, it was a literal musical epiphany. Before my music taste had been largely nondescript, tacking onto whatever awful chart/dance music was popular at the time (13 year olds aren’t generally known for their discerning aesthetic taste) and for me this song with its sweet melodies and (to my then-untrained ear) virtuosic guitar work was absolutely mind blowing. Around the same time, I had been beginning to teach myself to play piano and the fact that this was music with an association of being learnt and played by others and not merely passively consumed may have played a big part. Coincidentally, a group of friends formed a band and began playing a cover of the song in school assemblies around the same time, which may also have been an influence. I secured a copy of the full album at Christmas time and, inspired by the band’s iconic lead guitarist Slash, a cheap copy of a Les Paul guitar. The Les Paul would remain my pride and joy until I converted to the Church of Stratocaster on my 18th Birthday.
As Appetite for Destruction is considerably more well-known and commercially successful than the other two albums of this series, it’s difficult to say much about it that isn’t repeating what hundreds of professional critics and musos have said before. Of the big hits, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ is a real winner, setting the scene with an overture of delay drenched guitars before the inimitable Axl takes the stage to tell a gritty tale of L.A. life over one of the catchiest riffs ever. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ itself is one of those songs that is so culturally ubiquitous that it is very easy to forget how well written and arranged it actually is, that unmistakable intro is probably the defining guitar riff of the Gibson Les Paul, so much so that I can’t even bring myself to play it on my Strat, it just fundamentally feels wrong. The true money shot is when the song swings full circle from the lush love ballad of the first half to the absolute guitar-god Ragnarok that is the main solo. Here, Slash teases us with harmonic minor delight before launching into screaming Wah pedal ecstasy. What makes this tune even more impressive is how much of it was allegedly written by accident: Slash originally came up with the introduction as a technical exercise and the “Where do we go now?” refrain was the result of Axl picking his bandmates’ brains for a suitable set of closing lyrics in the studio.
Of the lesser known songs, ‘Mr. Brownstone’ and ‘Nightrain’ are two more of the group’s finest hours, the former a super groovy ode to heroin and the latter containing some seriously epic soloing from both Slash and Izzy Stradlin. The partnership of the two guitarists on the album is what, personally for me, gives it so much of its longevity. They almost never opt for the easy option of both playing the exact same thing until one breaks off into a solo but constantly complement and play off each other, giving real sonic expanse and nuance to what is often considered a cock rock band. For me, when Stradlin quit in the early 90s, Guns N’ Roses really lost something special and the absence of his compositional sense probably played a big part in the band’s decline.
Appetite for Destruction would be the initiation of a long and personal journey into the deeper corners of what the world of rock and roll had to offer. Although throughout a lot of its history it has been more of a soap opera than a musical ensemble, Guns N’ Roses was the first band I truly fell in love with, and for that deserves the first place on this blog.